Isabella Espana, a junior biology major, took the crown at “Ms. Philippines,” an annual cultural pageant hosted by Rutgers Newark and held at the Newark Symphony Hall on Jan. 28.
During the pageant, 22 representatives from collegiate Filipino organizations within the New Jersey and New York Metropolitan areas competed for the title of “Ms. Philippines.” The collegians, who must be of Filipino descent, participated in the walk-out, cultural and talent portions in a way that expresses their cultural identities.
Espana, who represented FLASH, the Filipino League at Seton Hall, said she did a lot of introspection before the pageant.
“My whole campaign was centered around my experiences with my mental health and the way that my communities have helped me through it,” Espana said. “I wanted to show how those communities uplift me and make me the person that I’m trying to be.”
To prepare for the pageant, each contestant is asked to raise money for a charity of their choice. Having raised the highest total, Espana said she was also awarded the superlative for “Ms. Charity.”
She said she chose to support Talang Dalisay, a non-profit Filipino organization that advocates for mental health and people with disabilities.
“We’re all just going through our own struggles,” Espana said. “I think it’s a good reminder to know that we all shine. ‘Talang Dalisay’ translates to ‘a pure, shining star.’”
She said the biggest challenge was learning to have faith in herself.
“The person that I try to put out to other people is feeling confident so that others could feel confident in themselves,” Espana said. “That helped translate the story even better because it was raw.”
Espana said winning the pageant was “amazing but bittersweet.”
“At first, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s just a pageant,’” Espana said. “But then once you go through it, it’s more than that because it’s your chance to share your story—to make your mark.”
Espana said she is grateful for the support from her “entourage” and the Filipino community.
“Authenticity, genuineness and plain passion wins it all because that’s what we had,” Espana said. “It was my story, but it was ours by the end of it.”
Nicholas Giaquinto, a senior finance major, was a member of Espana’s entourage. He said the pageant is “a way for the Filipino culture to be showcased in a way that you don’t typically see on a day-to-day basis.”
Giaquinto said Espana inspires him through the “humility in her soul.”
“Even when she got the crown, what she cared more about was winning this charity,” Giaquinto said.
Giaquinto said the pageant encouraged Espana and her entourage to exceed their limits.
“Being on stage with her, I felt an exuding energy and presence next to me throughout the whole performance,” Giaquinto said. “It was phenomenal.”
Kaylee Hoo, a sophomore English major, said the entourage put their “best selves out” on stage.
“We were up there, and we were just feeling the moment, felt the adrenaline, and it was the best time we’ve ever done the dance,” Hoo said. “We were feeding off of the crowd’s energy and their enthusias, and it was unreal.”
Cedrick Caballar, a junior nursing major and the second runner-up at last year’s “Mr. Philippines” pageant, said he put all of his emotion into the performance at Ms. PI.
“That anticipation literally kills you,” Caballar said. “I was honestly more nervous for her than I was for myself for Mr. PI.”
Isabella Toral, a senior special education and speech language pathology double major, was Espana’s “point person” for the pageant. Toral said she was initially inspired by Espana’s story.
“Learning about how giving her family is and knowing her roots, I felt really inspired,” Toral said. “That’s where I could see where Belle’s drive for this pageant comes from.”
Julianna Quiambao, a senior social and behavioral sciences major, was also a member of Espana’s entourage. She said she was “honored” to take part in the experience.
“Being on stage, backstage, and in a room filled with so many genuine people is what makes the experience so worth it,” Quiambao said. “At the end of the day, not only are we helping Belle showcase her story, but we’re also in a community with people who just want to have fun.”
Peyton Hruska can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.